I stood in the elevator of my boyfriend’s apartment building, nervous as all hell. We’d been dating for a few weeks, and he felt ready to introduce me to his eight-year-old daughter. My sweaty hands held tightly to the Mad Libs book and bracelet I had bought for her, and I took a few deep breaths before I knocked on his front door. I wondered if she was going to like me, whether I wore the right outfit, and why my goddamn palms wouldn’t stay dry.
Earlier that year, I suffered through a painful divorce that left my heart split open. I had desperately wanted children with my ex-husband, but it was a conversation regularly left on the bottom of every list. Looking back on it all now, I’m so grateful we didn’t start a family. But when I was knee deep in my pain, I yearned to become a mom one day soon.
I went on about forty first dates the year I met my husband Matt. By the time he showed up on my dating app, I’d been through the single life ringer and decided I wanted the next relationship to be my last. I was ready to give marriage another try, finally have kids, and grow old with someone.
I just never expected that the man I’d fall deeply in love with would already have a child.
Matt’s daughter, Bella, ended up shattering every single expectation I had of her. She was one of the most expressive, thoughtful, and funny kids I had ever met. We immediately hit it off over dinner, and the conversation was going so well that I distinctly remember holding in my pee past comfort level just to keep talking with her. We also played an improvised game called “find the tiny, invisible green man,” where we’d take turns hopping that imaginary guy from glass to glass while we laughed our asses off. Our waiter even deemed us “the party table,” an apt description for us that night.
In so many ways, I wish we could have frozen our “party table” moment in time and kept our relationship like that forever. But the complexities of navigating a blended family make it hard to always feel like celebrating. There is just so much vulnerability that goes into step-parenting a child who has experienced divorce, and it can feel like a swift punch to your ego every time you realize you’re probably never going to be the one they need the most.
It was obvious that Matt’s daughter loved initially connecting with me, but I could also tell it felt difficult for her to welcome me into the “Dad and Bella Only” bubble. For three years after the divorce, these two had cocooned themselves inside of an impenetrable love that kept everyone else out. And for good reason – they were lucky if they saw each other a couple times a week at most, and this father-daughter duo was as lovingly close as a dad and kid can be.
When I came along, Bella was trying so hard to embrace me as a new, and potentially lasting, addition to her family. But she was also fighting an inner battle against wanting me to take up the space necessary to be in her dad’s life. I don’t blame the kid at all for feeling that way, because I too am a child of divorce. The emotions that flood the mind of a young person navigating the end of their trusted family dynamic can be painful and uncomfortable to encounter. And so many of the decisions made during this time can leave these kids feeling powerless to a situation they just can’t control.
It took a while, but we eventually got into a nice groove together. And when I got pregnant with her little sister, Bella knew that I was in it for the long haul. She responded to the news with tears and laughter all at once, which was to be expected. When I birthed my daughter June, Bella was there to hold her for the first time. And when Matt and I got married the following year, Bella stood up in the wedding.
In fact, Matt and I did everything we could to help Bella feel included, important, and unequivocally loved. I admittedly went a teensy bit overboard to show her just how much I loved her, because I knew the agony of her experience post-divorce and wanted to ease it as much as I could. It’s also because I’m a recovering perfectionist with an insatiable zest to people please. And Bella was most definitely someone I wanted to please.
My husband worked long hours, making it a challenge to pick up his daughter at a decent hour. To help him out and show Bella my dedication, I spent hours each week in the car, making the long commute to pick her up from school in the town where her mom lived. When my daughter was just 12 weeks old, I also started bringing her along for the ride. As new moms, we all know the sheer difficulty of hearing a screaming baby in the back seat as we drive. I cringe when I think back to those days of shuffling my newborn around, sitting in mind-numbing traffic, and needing to constantly pull over to the side of the road to breastfeed in between June’s bouts of crying.
But if you spent just five minutes with my stepkid, you’d totally know why I went the extra miles.
It was during those car rides when we connected the most, when I got to help her work through issues she was going through, and when I could really listen to my stepdaughter as she figured out life with me in it. I already knew I was dealing with a kid who voluntarily walked herself into the school counselor’s office in first grade, after the news was broken to her about her parents’ divorce. So when we talked, I didn’t just give her advice – I let this wise, old soul of a child guide me too.
Since Bella primarily lived with her mom and stepdad, I wasn’t the go-to parent for big decisions about her. If I had an opinion about what was best for her, I’d talk to Matt about it and hope he’d bring it up to Bella’s mom. I haven’t always been on board with the way Bella has been parented at times, but my only way to deal with it has been learning to let go and patiently wait to care for her the way we want to when she’s with us.
It should be noted that I’m not a patient person by any means, and I’m embarrassingly terrible at letting things go. So this has all been an exhausting journey towards inner growth, to say the least.
With time, I began to learn the hard way that I’m not Bella’s mom, no matter how much I wish I could be at times. She’s already got a dedicated mother who loves her so much, and I remember this during the moments when I don’t see eye to eye with certain parenting choices. Learning how to be a vital part of this kid’s life without crossing a line beyond stepmom territory has been a delicate balance, and I still haven’t fully figured out how to do it.
I probably never will.
I knew I could at least control what we did when Bella stayed with us, so I’d go the extra mile with her whenever she was around. In the beginning, I loved checking Bella’s homework, packing her lunch with little love notes, giving her pep talks, and scream singing in the car together. I even stuck positive affirmations all over her bedroom and on the back of our front door, so she’d wake up feeling good about herself before she left for school. She didn’t always outwardly express it, but based on the laughs and smiles alone, I think it all helped.
Sure, it was tough to juggle the ongoing needs of my infant with this amazing kid I loved so much. And not having any extra family around to help me sucked big time. Honestly, I achieved a lot of what I did through a fuck ton of trial and error — and of course, so much coffee. But largely, everything was going pretty great, despite the occasional obstacles of stepmom vs. mom life.
That is, until I got pregnant with my son and shit seriously hit the fan with my mental health.
I lost my job this past January, and that gig was like finding a magical career unicorn in the wild. I was also becoming more and more pregnant and didn’t want to overdo it with too many long drives, like I had the last time. Then there was the curve ball of unexpected panic attacks, leading up to a shocking PTSD diagnosis, which certainly didn’t help matters for me. Ultimately, I made the tough decision to pick up Bella much less often, and I requested a halfway pickup spot when I did make the trip to get her.
These halfway meeting areas are usually commonplace for divorced parents who live far away. But for Bella’s full-time working mom and stepdad, the idea of adding more driving to their already busy schedule wasn’t something they wanted to do. We tried for a few months to make the new situation work, but eventually I just stopped being able to pick up Bella altogether.
Looking back on that time, I now realize that the pressures of trying to be everything to everyone broke me down to a point where I was living with chronic anxiety and panic. Bella would never have known it, because I was always sure to put on a brave face whenever she’d stay with us. But juggling two rounds of new motherhood, struggling to find work that paid well, mental health and financial struggles, and Bella’s ever-changing needs was overwhelming as all hell.
Overall, I learned that overextending myself to be the all-time best stepmom I could be left me depleted as fuck.
In the year since I birthed my second child, a whole lot has changed. My husband and I temporarily relocated to the East Coast, where his parents and extended family live. It’s also the place where Bella spent the first five years of her life. The idea of being in an area with so much family support has felt like immediate, and necessary, relief for me. But knowing we’d be an airplane ride away from Bella has broken my fucking heart.
The truth is, there’s never an easy decision when you’re dealing with a stepchild. There’s never a choice you make that feels like the right one. You have to learn to live with the discomfort of knowing that you’re always going to be sharing this kid with a whole other family, that her heart may still be broken deep inside from the monumental changes made for her, and that her trust in you is dependent upon your constant stability in her life. Being far away from Bella has been so tough, especially because she’s been struggling recently with the crushing pressures of middle school and challenges at home.
And she’s obviously missing the hell out of her dad.
I don’t have a clear answer yet for our road ahead, but I do know this – in learning to love Matt’s daughter, I have been given the gift of also learning how to be a mom before I ever actually birthed a child. Bella has turned my world upside down in a way I never knew I always needed. I tell her this next part often, and it always bears repeating. Bella is, without a doubt, one of my favorite people in the whole entire world.
You know that quote about feeling like your heart is walking around outside of you when you have a kid? Well, the same thing can happen with a stepchild. The tight rope walk of learning how to exist like that when you aren’t actually a kid’s biological parent is so damn challenging. But thanks to Bella, I will forever be up to the challenge.